The reconstruction and state manipulation of tribes and tribalism are prominent features of contemporary Middle Eastern politics, notably in Jordan and Iraq. Under the totalitarian Ba’thist regime in Iraq, two major patterns have developed. One may be called etatist tribalism — a process in which tribal lineages and symbolic culture were integrated into the state to enhance the power of the fragile elite. This process was exclusive, promoting certain Sunni Arab clans and relatives of the elite. Etatist tribalism began in the 1970s and continued into the early 1990s. The second pattern, social tribalism, signifies the regime’s loss of potency in a restless mass urban society. Sensing its weakness due to the impact of war and sanctions, the state devolved functions such as judicial powers, tax collection and law enforcement to the resilient local tribal or kin networks it detected. When so manipulated, reconstructed tribal groups act as an extension of the state. Unlike etatist tribalism, social tribalism has been broadly spread across Iraq’s communal and ethnic divides. Manipulation allowed the state to rally Kurdish and Shi’i tribal groups against Iranian soldiers from 1980-88, in the case of the Shi’a forestalling potential solidarity with their co-religionists from Iran. Both etatist and social tribalism have roots in the persistence of tribal culture in the urban social spaces where migrant segments of disintegrating tribes and clans now live.

Resilient Historical Roots

The tribe is perhaps the most enduring and most controversial social entity in the Middle East. From the rise of literate, centralizing polities in the agrarian epoch to the era of industrialism and nation-states, the tribe sustained incessant change. What exactly is the tribe and what is tribalism? The thirteenth-century sociologist Ibn Khaldun advanced a highly influential theory. According to what is known as the Khaldunian cycle, militarily superior tribes united by ‘asabiyya (solidarity) periodically conquered centers of civilization but eventually became sedentarized. Ibn Khaldun saw nomadism and agriculture opposed in dynamic equilibrium; hence tribes only had meaning in contradistinction to the city-state. [1]

For many years, strong tribes in Iraq were mobile mini-states commanding military might, substantial pastures and the ability to exact tribute from settled areas. A system of hierarchy based on the mode of subsistence developed, with the camel-breeding tribes at the top, sheep breeders below, peasants below them and marsh dwellers at the bottom of the scale. Where sedentary agriculture prevailed, another hierarchy placed rice planters on top, followed by vegetable growers and manual artisans. Intermarriage was prohibited or abhorred.

The stable rule and gunpowder of the Ottomans brought the Khaldunian cycle to a halt in Iraq, altering power relations in favor of the settled areas. The Ottomans turned the chieftains into camel-breeding tax-farmers — they recognized central power, and collected former tributes as tax for the state. Combined with the introduction of ownership of communal land, these changes developed tribal divisions into a divide between the landed and landless by the twentieth century. The landlords introduced military forces independent from the tribe to enforce their will, and British colonial law excluded Iraq’s countryside from the national judiciary system until 1958. Meanwhile the colonial state gradually appropriated former tribal functions like registration of land, water distribution and law enforcement, and monopolized the means of violence.

On the social level, the tribe disappeared, replaced by village communities based on extended families or sub-clans. These communities often retained their tribal names, but were linked to the agricultural market rather than to the subsistence economy. With rural-urban migration, village solidarities crept into adjacent towns and larger cities, where the process of detribalization has been very slow. The peasant migrants who fled ‘Amara and Kut in the 1950s settled in the eastern suburbs of Baghdad. Their suburb, Madinat al-Thawra (Revolution City), was divided into parallel avenues dissected by minor streets and alleys. Each avenue or street was numbered like the streets of New York City. In the course of one year, street numbers were replaced by tribal names, which taxi and minibus drivers, as well as civil servants, had to learn. Urban life, with its fragmenting division of labor, commercialized economy, alien lifestyle and hostile environment, strengthens this cultural tribalism. Resilient cultural tribalism lives in peaceful symbiosis with the most contemporary of ideologies and social movements, becoming integrated into communist-led trade unions and Islamist mosques, for instance.

Tribe Inside Party

Among the main features of the Iraqi state since colonial times has been its detachment from a broad social base. First British military power and then massive oil wealth enabled the state to destroy or reduce propertied classes and control the bulk of social wealth, unleashing authoritarian tendencies that precluded even distribution of power in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society. A state in search of a nation, the monarchy initiated some participatory mechanisms through traditional status groups, but overlooked the burgeoning middle and working classes. When the radical regimes toppled the monarchy in 1958, they improved representation of the middle class, but failed to integrate ethnic and religious groups, triggering instability. Worse still was the dismantling of institutional structures for nation-building, like the parliament and the upper house. [2] The military owned the means of violence, and therefore the only chance to acquire power within the new regimes, but the officer corps was riven with class and ideological differences. The series of coups and military governments
in the 1960s failed to find the social base that would enable it to resist internal dissent. The engineers of the second Ba’th takeover in July 1968 were to remedy this deficiency. The new Ba’thist elite had four key features: 1) origins in small provincial towns where tribal solidarities are strongest; 2) high awareness of the power of the military; 3) experience in mass politics; and 4) awareness of its own weakness. [3] The elite lived in constant fear of losing power. As Saddam Hussein said: “We can not allow some three or four officers riding tanks to come and take power again.” [4] The regime met this challenge by massively expanding party ranks to 1,800,000 in less than eight years, and by peopling the military and security services with family and clan networks. Recruitment occurred through three bodies: the military bureau of the party, invariably presided over by Beijats or their close allies; the Maktab al-‘Alaqat al-‘Amma (Bureau of Public Relations), the bureau in charge of all security services, presided over by Saddam Hussein in person; and the Committee of Tribes, designated to police the Iraqi-Syrian border. Combining these three bodies in his hand, Saddam Hussein could literally buy elements of the various poor extended families and clans in the Sunni areas of Iraq. The Beijats were given preference in sensitive security organs such as the Republican Guards, the Defense Ministry, the Baghdad Garrison and the air force. [5] Primordial networks replaced the conspiratorial atmosphere resulting from the multiple coups with loyalty and trust.

With this etatist tribalism, the state detached tribal elements from their original habitat, and built them into itself. Primordial networks are integrated into the bureaucracy of the party, the administration and the military. The great patriarch is the leader of the party and the head of the state. But etatist tribalism does not destroy tribal solidarities altogether. Rather, as tribal members grow richer and more powerful within the state, they assume higher positions in their own clan, which in turn uses them as conduits to economic and political power. The favored clan groups gain handsome government contracts and join the ranks of the nouveau riche. Preliminary research suggests that the Beijats and their allies joined the class of millionaire contractors that grew to around 3,000 by the end of the Iraq-Iran war. So the social and economic power amassed by households through tribal connections would enable those households to reassert themselves the moment the state is weakened. [6]

Tribe Versus Party

These twin logics of etatist tribalism — modern bureaucracy and tribal loyalty — can coexist peacefully, but under the Ba’thist regime they were bound to clash head on. During the first four years of Ba’thist rule, no sign of opposition to the large-scale induction of tribal kinsmen into the bureaucracy was evident. In fact, the party welcomed any means of strengthening its ranks. But two episodes soon indicated party dissatisfaction: the failed coup organized by the ex-director general of the security service, Nazim Gizar, in July 1973, and the so-called “conspiracy” of June 1979 against Hussein, led by Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) members Muhammad ‘Ayish and ‘Adnan Hussein. Among the catalysts of these revolts of middle-class party apparatchiks was resentment of the power of the Beijat, including Hussein and his Tikriti brethren. The party malcontents sought practical power sharing — a cohabitation with formidable tribal groups rather than their overthrow. In the 1979 episode, party opposition tried to deploy one Beijat, President Bakr in this instance, against Hussein and his half-brothers. The success of the Beijat and their tribal allies proved the wisdom of Ibn Khaldun when he said: “Those with the tribal solidarity lead (al-ri’asa fi ahl al-‘asabiyya).” [7]

Like other forms of social association, Khaldunian solidarities are prone to ruptures and fierce power struggles. Even Hussein’s clan, the Beijat, is divided into sub-clans and extended families that are its most effective units. The “Tikriti gang” often mentioned in media accounts is a misleading term, since the tribes in Tikrit are divided into three distinct sections, the Al Bu Nasir, so-called “original or historical Tikritis” claiming descent from the Roman garrison town and descendants from the Dulaym. Al Bu Nasir is now the fictive tribe of which the Beijat clan is presumably the leading segment. The Beijatis formed of ten households. When Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr assumed the presidency of the republic in 1968, his al-Bakr segment gained clan leadership. With al-Bakr’s demise, power shifted to three households, one of which was Al Bu Khattab, the section from which Hussein and his half-brothers descend.

According to Ibn Khaldun, ‘asabiyya begins to fracture the moment state wealth is seized. In a modern oil-rentier state, the fractures accelerate and mutate. The first split came with the purge of the Tikritis proper, such as ex-Defense Minister Hardan ‘Abd al-Ghaffar al-Tikriti, who was assassinated in Kuwait in 1971, and Salah ‘Umar ‘Ali, the ex-RCC member who was transferred in 1970 to a minor diplomatic post in the US. The second major episode of the Beijat cleavages was the forced resignation of al-Bakr in June 1979. In these two cases, the party and the clan were used against each other.

The third rift was apparent during the flight, pardon, return and assassination on August 7, 1995 of Hussein’s sons-in-law, Hussein Kamil and Saddam Kamil. Here the clan split against itself in pure form.

Frictions flared up between the sons-in-laws’ family, the Majids, and Al Bu Khattab.The president’s paternal cousins removed the Khattabs from security and intelligence. Hussein’s rising sons, Qusay and Uday, relegated both Hussein’s half-brothers and the Majid cousins to secondary positions or to oblivion.

These antagonisms had some roots in marriage alliances. The president has three daughters and two sons. Their marriages involved a redistribution of political power in which  all households would vie with each other for predominance. For his daughters, the president opted for the agnatic pattern, giving them to the Kamils, much to the dismay of other groups, particularly his half-brothers, who felt threatened. When the third and youngest daughter of the president was proposedto by Hussein Kamil’s younger brother, even the other families of the Majid reacted against an abnormal concentration of power. The bloody demise of the Kamils created bitter rifts in the presidential household.

The next rift may divide Uday and Qusay. Both cannot be heirs to their father.

Tribe Instead of State

If etatist tribalism was a conscious state policy, the state tried to eliminate tribal strength outside itself. The Ba’thist single-party system absorbed all nascent civil society institutions, such as unions, professional associations, independent press, chambers of commerce and industrial leagues. The vacuum created by this omnipresent state hegemony reactivated kinship networks as shields, safety nets and resource bases. The need for kinship networks grows stronger as state welfare benefits become weaker under the impact of war and sanctions.

In the 1980s, local party apparatchiks weakened the strength of tribes by assuming roles hitherto played by community notables. This state and party penetration disturbed the tribal hierarchy in various areas. A party cadre from lower clans (marsh dwellers, for instance) would rule over tribal segments from a higher status. This penetration was only temporary.

During the Iraq-Iranwar, party members, recruited en masse into the war machine, were spread thinly in tribal spaces. As economic hardships increased, old leadership patterns reemerged. State media contributed to this trend by propagating the most popular forms of tribal war poetry. Targeting the mostly tribal soldiers, the Propaganda Department in the Ministry of Defense focused on tribal concepts of manly valor, military prowess, revenge and honor. [8]

With the second Gulf war, the state lost much of its economic and military potency. Deprived of revenues, the state withdrew from social services, and salaried middle and lower urban and rural classes were hit hard by hyperinflation and newly introduced heavy taxation. Uncontrolled commercial activity increased together with poverty. The state, as an instrument of control and governance, sustained heavy damage: The army was downsized to less than a third of its prewar level, the party disintegrated and the security services suffered heavy losses during and after the March 1991 uprisings. Especially in rural Shi’i areas, where state control is weakest, but also in rural Sunni areas, full-fledged tribalism emerged to fill the gaps left by the totalitarian regime.

The State Detects Social Tribalism

Social tribalism was detected rather than invented by the state. During the fierce battles on the fronts of Basra and ‘Amara in 1982-85, Arab tribes in the Qurna districts and the marshes voluntarily resisted Iranian forces. This event did not escape the watchful eye of the regime. The Arab Shi’i military tribalism differed from the regime’s previous purchase of Kurdish tribes to fight the Kurdish nationalist peshmerga — it was Iraqi nationalist and spontaneous.

Rawqan Ghaffur al-Majid, the president’s nephew and aide de camp, was put in charge of efforts to arm the Shi’i tribes as a national defense force on the battlegrounds of Basra, ‘Amara, Kut and the marshes. The regime sought to exploit the cultural divergence of Arab and Persian Shi’ism. Shi’ism in Iran has been an integral part of Iranian nationalism, and differed from rural Shi’ism in Iraq. The ethnic divide was strongly felt among Arab marsh tribes. In party circulars of this period, tribes were praised for their valor, manhood and military prowess, and hailed as the repository of unadulterated Arabism. [9] As the war and the 1991 uprising revealed the decline of the party and the resurgence of local authority structures, the Ba’th forces regime sought alliance with the rising force.

For the first time in Iraq’s modern history, a major delegate of tribal chieftains was received at the presidential palace on March 29, 1991, shortly after both the defeat of Iraq in the second Gulf war and the demise of the uprisings that erupted thereafter. From that moment, one tribal delegate after another came to the palace hoisting aloft a tribal banner (bayraq), a symbolic display of loyalty. At one of these meetings, the president apologized for past agrarian reforms that broke up the holdings of the shaykh-landlords, and decreed redistribution of land to compensate them. [10] Iraqi newspapers reflected the rehabilitation of the tribes in various ways. Instead of the usual telegrams of support conveyed by organizations of students or unions, tribal shaykhs were given prominence.


Actual reconstruction of “authentic” tribes — groups centered around a core of recognized elders — was often difficult to achieve. Migration, diverging economic and social interests and changes in lifestyles and value systems had almost wiped out the old cultural-spatial markers of the clan or the tribe. Yet, old tribal names and symbols have been retained by some old families in a nominal fashion. The new opportunities the regime offered to tribal chieftains encouraged nominal tribal figures to assemble heterogeneous elements and bestow upon them the old tribal name.

While “authentic” tribal chieftains are held in high esteem, manufactured ones are, as a matter of course, disdained by the public. A degrading term — “chieftains made in Taiwan” — has been coined to mock manufactured leaders. [11]

Fake or authentic, the reconstructed tribes have little in common with the old tribe.The new entity is predominantly based in the city. It relies no more on agriculture, and it has no clearly marked territory. The leaders are, in most cases, middle-class professionals, civil servants and the like. Instead of the traditional guest house, the new chieftains rent modern apartments for centers of tribal social life. The new tribes maintain law and order, settle disputes among their members and between members and other clans. Disputes range from commercial to criminal offenses, including the settlement of blood money. With the corruption of law enforcement agencies and courts, powerful and influential are approached to settle intractable disputes or provide protection. These services bring revenues. The new tribes are clearly accumulating an independent resource base.

In May 1996, the regime acted to organize state-tribe relations. A draft plan proposed a high council of tribal chiefs with direct access to the president, and the granting of small arms, land, diplomatic passports and military exemptions to shaykhs in exchange for their absolute loyalty. [12] In addition to law enforcement, national security tasks were entrusted to certain tribes, as seen in November and December 1998 during the Iraqi-US showdown. Armed units in civilian clothes and tribal headdress were deployed at strategic points in Baghdad and other cities to assist special security services in carrying out contingency plans. Such actions were previously the duty of the Popular Army (the party militia). Whatever the exact nature of the arrangement, de facto, the state has devolved power to local leaders because previous mechanisms are either gone or too weak to function.

Tribe Versus State (Redux)

Alliances with the new tribes may have strengthened the state, but the relationship is fraught with tensions. The detribalized elements of society fear the newly powerful chieftains will impose customary law in urban areas. Tribal gangsterism in rural areas also evokes concern. Segments from the Dulaym, for instance, terrorize passengers on the Baghdad-Amman route. Cars and buses have to travel in convoys in broad daylight to avoid Dulaymi raids. The rate of violent crime has been increasing so rapidly that it has become a source of embarrassment to law enforcement agencies and the new tribes. Some non-tribal segments have been driven to invent tribes of their own. The party has registered many protests against retribalization. [13]

Like the old hierarchy of the classical tribes, the new tribal creations form a hierarchy in which alliances shift constantly. A precarious equilibrium exists, but it is fragile and exposed to the fiercest of antagonisms. The resolution of intertribal strife shows the weakness of the state. Some tribal segments in Baghdad, for example, forged cooperation based on a system of rewards and retribution independently from the state — in a process oddly reminiscent of the workings of civil society elsewhere. This legacy of self-administration might reinforce the drive of Iraqi society toward autonomy from the state, provided that social wealth remains detached from political power.

Unclear boundaries between the jurisdictions of state functionaries and tribal leaders have led to direct clashes between the state agencies and tribal power. Officials have been sued by tribal chieftains for alleged transgressions of customary law, for instance, inflicting physical injury on a tribal member who was being chased for desertion or a criminal act. Tribes have started filing suits against state and party functionaries demanding tribal compensation or even blood money. [14] There have been recurrent threats of violence or actual assassinations of military and state security officers by tribal groups seeking revenge. In March 1997, the RCC was prompted to issue Resolution 24 prohibiting tribes from taking any action against state functionaries if the latter had caused any injury while performing their duties. [15]

The fusion of state and tribe has produced reflexive tribal and institutional conflict. This overlap was the natural result of the interaction of the effects of etatist and social tribalism. Groups and individuals who were delinked from their tribal habitat in the first phase of etatist tribalism were relinked to these tribal spaces when social tribalism peaked. The regime now has to worry that any tribal conflict will create a potential institutional conflict, and vice versa, that any institutional clash may have tribal repercussions. The case of Brigadier General Mazloum al-Dulaymi serves as a good example. His execution triggered massive protests in his hometown, Ramadi. Then some of his kin reportedly staged a military insurrection in Abu Ghurayb military base, leading Hussein to sack Defense Minister Ali Hasan al-Majid. [16]

Retribalization, then, has produced contradictory results: a clash between the state and the tribes, a clash between the tribalized and detribalized sections of society, a clash among tribes themselves and clashes within the state.


[1] Ali Wardi, Mantiq Ibn Khaldun [The Logic of Ibn Khaldun] (Baghdad, 1962); Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddima, pp. 136, 143-144.
[2] The best treatment of these years remains Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes and Revolutionary Movements in Iraq (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981).
[3] Ba’th membership in 1968 was only 150, though some estimates put it between 300 and 400. Interview with Salah ‘Umar ‘Ali, London, April 3 and 10, 1994.
[4] Samir al-Khalil, Republic of Fear (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989), pp. 26-27.
[5] Batatu, p. 1093.
[6] Kiren Chaudhry, “On the Way to Market,” Middle East Report 170 (May-June 1991).
[7] Ibn Khaludun, Muqaddima, pp. 119-120.
[8] Interview with Hashim ‘Iqabi, folkloric poet, London, January 22, 1996.
[9] On Iraqi Shi’ism, see Yitzhak Nakash, The Shia of Iraq (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994). Interviews with Ba’th party cadres, London, February 1995 and Amman, April-May 1995.
[10] Al-Hayat, July 30, 1991.
[11] Interviews and letters from tribal members residing in Europe, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraqi Kurdistan. Iraq’s wealthy import Japanese cars and electronics. The lower classes generally buy cheaper products made in Taiwan.
[12] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, May 14, 1996.
[13] Amatzia Baram, “Neo-Tribalism in Iraq: Saddam Hussein’s Tribal Politics,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 29 (1997).
[14] al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 30, 1997.
[15] Iraqi News Agency, March 29, 1997.
[16] Al-Wasat, June 26, 1995.

How to cite this article:

Faleh A. Jabar "Shaykhs and Ideologues," Middle East Report 215 (Summer 2000).

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